The process of creating an imaginary world is vital to fantasy. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings emerged from an elaborate world building project, setting the tone for much of the genre. Even when you’re making a change to our world rather than building a whole new one, as Stephenie Meyer did with the vampires of Twilight, there’s still world-building – thinking through the consequences of what you’ve added.
So what are the fundamentals to consider when world-building?
The Big Change
If you’re planning on writing fantasy then you probably already know what you want to be different about your setting. If not then there are many sources of inspiration, from history to storytelling games. Think about something that will be different about your world, from the existence of wizards to cities floating across the sea, and start from there.
If you have a lot of ideas for what will be different, then it’s best to focus first on your single biggest change, or the interaction between two ideas. By focusing on the one change that excites you most you’ll create coherence while fuelling your creative energy.
For an example, let’s create a world where people control electricity using their minds. Perhaps it’s also a place with flying monkeys and something strange in the ocean, but those electricity users are the characters, and we think they’ll transform the world, so they’re our focus.
Having chosen your central idea, build out from that. Think about how it changes the world. In our world of people who can control electricity, we might consider how that power is used in society. Do these people work for the emergency services or the army? Does their power mean that they get to rule nations? Are there attacks by super-powered terrorists that leave whole cities without electricity?
If you’re looking at the interaction between two ideas then expand upon that. How are our electrical people connected to the strange thing hiding in the ocean? Did it create them? Do they fight it? Have they made it up to keep people scared? Keep going, fleshing out the changes to politics, culture and society, adding flesh to the bones of your world.
John Layman and Rob Guillory’s comic Chew is a great example of building from one idea. They’ve invented dozens of different food-related superpowers, and a whole range of ways they change the world. A single novelty has been spun into something rich and varied.
Systems of the World
Most fantasy world building involves magic or some sort of technology that’s different from our own. Getting this right is one of the most important parts of world building.
Whether you’re adding magic or technology, think about how it works as a system. If it doesn’t seem consistent and coherent then readers will have trouble buying into it. Creating a consistent system will also create great opportunities within your story, as characters run up against the edges of what they can do. So know the rules of your system.
Two of the most important things to consider are the limits of magic and its cost. Limits include who can and can’t use it, what it can and can’t do, and how it can be stopped. These prevent magic from becoming a deus ex machina solution that removes the challenge for characters and so the tension for readers.
Cost is one of these limitations, and creates an interesting set of challenges and dilemmas. If characters need certain ingredients to cast spells that will shape the economy of your world, as those ingredients become valuable, and create challenges in the story as characters run out. If characters have to spill innocent blood to cast spells then dilemmas may arise over whether to use their power at all, even when lives are at stake.
The Wow Factor and Coherence
If you’re building a fantasy world then you want there to be a wow factor – exciting things that grab readers’ attention. Half the fun of world building is adding this, so push your ideas further to make them unusual and dramatic.
The best sort of wow factor doesn’t come from dozens of unconnected ideas flung together in a disjointed mess. It comes from taking a core idea and finding its most exciting consequences. The human electrical conduit enslaved at the heart of a power station. The vast storms of discharged power at night. The city-wide blackouts from those electrical attacks.
A fantasy world can be both dazzling and coherent – the best combination to draw readers in.
For more on world building, check out this episode of the Writing Excuses podcast – the notes also include links to other episodes on world building.